Nancy Pelosi was unanimously reelected to her post as the top Democrat in the House on Tuesday. That victory came two weeks to the day after an election in which Democrats lost 10 to 13 seats and dipped to their lowest number of seats in the House since World War II.
Doesn't make sense to you? It does to Pelosi, who in an interview with The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe on Monday made a remarkable argument that the 2014 midterm election was, in fact, something of a victory for her and her side. O'Keefe asked Pelosi about her insistence in a July interview that Democrats could win 25 seats (and would win 17) on Nov. 4 -- and why that didn't come to pass. Here's what she said (and thanks to Ed for the transcription):
Well, we did have 25 seats in play and we’ve won 13 or 14 of them. We’ve won a majority of those seats. We lost seven freshmen and we lost three – [Tim] Bishop, [Nick] Rahall and [John] Barrow. Fabulous people who won in tough districts over and over again. But remember what I said then, it’s like the Olympics, it’s a little bit on one side, it’ll be a fraction of a second, fraction of an inch. That’s how it came down. Of that 25, I think it’s 14 of them that we have won. There’s one that it’s a loss for us, but it wasn’t an incumbent. It was Bruce Braley’s seat. So that’s another seat. But it wasn’t an incumbent, it was just that he didn’t win his own district. But in terms of people who are not coming back, it’s nine, no 10. It’s 10. It’s the three and then seven. Now, we’ll see what happens. They won 10, we won about 14 of them. . . . Of course, no one likes to see their colleagues leave and you don’t want to lose, but of those 25 races, we won 14 and lost 10.
First of all, remember that Pelosi's statement to O'Keefe in July wasn't that 25 seats would be in play; it was that Democrats would pick up 25 seats (although she never made quite clear whether that was a gross or a net number.) Here's her direct quote from July: “We’re playing in about 70 districts. Twenty-five is my goal – I would like that. Seventeen is our must. I think we win 17 of those seats." So, Pelosi cast the playing field as 70 seats and predicted a minimum gain of 17 -- a pickup that would have given the majority back to Democrats.
Second, Pelosi's math -- the whole 25 seats in play, we won 14, they won 10 thing -- doesn't really add up. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan handicapping service, rated 16 Democratic-held seats as toss-ups heading into Election Day. Republicans won nine of those while Democrats won five. Two others -- California's 7th and Arizona's 2nd -- remain uncalled. (Democrats have a lead in the California seat; Republicans have the edge in Arizona.) Of the five Republican-held tossups, Republicans won three and Democrats two. Cook had 11 Democratic seats and one Republican seat in its "lean Democrat" column; Democrats won nine of those and Republicans three. Republicans swept all six of the Republican-held "lean Republican" seats.
Given the seeming discrepancy between Pelosi's math and the Cook numbers, I reached out to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for some explanation. It said that Pelosi was citing the 24 or 25 most competitive Democratic-held seats in her interview with O'Keefe. Which is absolutely fine. But winning a majority of the competitive seats you currently control while taking over just a few Republican-held seats isn't the same thing as winning back the majority. Or even close to it.
Now, Pelosi's broader point to O'Keefe appears to be that a) Democrats didn't do as badly as some people thought they might and b) the very fact that Democrats even have a chance to win back the House in 2016 is the result of the work she has done over the years. “I’m the one that brought everyone to the party by winning the House in the first place," she told O'Keefe.
On that second point, she's right. No one -- not even Pelosi's most ardent detractors within the party -- believes that the majority could have been won (or held) if not for her tremendous fundraising ability and credibility with the liberal end of the House Democratic caucus. And, if Pelosi decided to step aside today, there would be no obvious heir apparent who could come close to filling the space she occupies in the House. Pelosi's first point -- that Democrats did better than people thought they would -- is more debatable. Losses in the teens were cast as worst-case-scenario-type stuff in private conversations I had with Democratic strategists before the election, but it is also true that given the decidedly Republican nature of the night, Democrats could have fared even worse than they did.
Look. Pelosi, as the face of House Democrats, had to be the person in July saying that absolutely the majority was within reach. If she said there was no chance, the party's ability to persuade donors to keep donating and activists to keep, um, activating would disappear -- and Democrats would have lost bigger than they did on Nov. 4. I get that.
But, in the after-action report -- which is what a series of interviews Pelosi has granted of late amounts to -- it seems to make little sense to somehow parse the numbers in a way that suggests that Democrats in fact did pretty darn well in the 2014 election. They didn't. This was an across-the-board drubbing that was a rejection of President Obama and, more broadly, his party. Acknowledging that reality is critically important for congressional Democrats.